Yet another critique of Alpha

I had never heard the word indifferentism before I became serious about becoming Catholic.

What was never a concern before, has now become a concern, maybe because I had an indifferentist streak that has been replaced by a a deep sense that what seems inessential, or secondary, is in fact not inessential and if omitted starts to unravel even the primary things.  Anyway, when I think of how I was led to a richer, fuller, deeper Catholic faith, I see how it took place in stages and I still think there can be merit in using an Alpha Course to help seekers come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now that I’m Catholic I do not think in terms so much of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ–of course I love Him, but that’s not my “lingo” anymore. I am more likely to think of the Holy Trinity–The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, not as some theological concept, but the dynamic love of the Tri-Personal God.

But I digress.  Laurence England has a critique of Alpha on his blog  That the Bones You Have Crushed May Thrill.  It’s worth reading, and my endorsement of Alpha for use in attracting seekers does not mean I think Catholic Churches should throw everything else for a Protestant-ized kind of worship!  God forbid!

Only that I have seen so, so many former Catholics who left the Church because they were never taught was was going on, nor were they helped to truly encounter Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  So, they thought they had to leave to “find Jesus” in a Protestant Church.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of Laurence’s blog post. Go on over and read the whole thing:

Priests should be made aware that Alpha has been successful only in creating more Protestants with few ties to bind them to a particular Church, denomination or ‘ecclesial community’. Alpha might create more Christians but it won’t create more Catholics. Nor will it provide Catholics with a deepening of their Catholic faith or identity. It will not teach Catholics to love the Mass. Content on the Sacraments is negligible. Catholic priests and bishops should be made aware that Alpha is designed from beginning to end to teach those who come to the course as enquirers that there is really no reason to be a Catholic or an Anglican or a Protestant Evangelical either and whatever floats your boat really…its all about you and Jesus (and the speaking in tongues gift-giving Holy Spirit) and that’s really more or less it. The Church is those who believe in Christ and you can find that Salvation anywhere in any Christian community. That’s why the Alpha course is run by Methodists, Anglicans, Evangelicals etc and now Catholics. This, however, is not the faith of the Catholic Church. 

Laurence cites the Evangelium Course as a better way to reach people for the Catholic Church.   We did the Evangelium Course as our catechesis for entering the Church.  It is a good program.   However, where Alpha can be life-changing for people are the opportunities at a few junctures of the course for ministry and prayer, for inviting Jesus into one’s life.   So, it’s not only learning about Jesus, about prayer, or in the case of Evangelium, about the Church, about sacraments and so on—-it’s more hands on, providing opportunities for people to have a life-altering experience of God.

I dunno.  I’m remembering days when I appreciated the Alpha Course, but I was a Protestant then.  Perhaps if I did one now, I would be horrified?


5 thoughts on “Yet another critique of Alpha

  1. 1. “However, where Alpha can be life-changing for people are the opportunities at a few junctures of the course for ministry and prayer, for inviting Jesus into one’s life.”
    The problem with Alpha is not that it provides an opportunity “for inviting Jesus into one’s life” – that is of course important and I completely agree with you that too many Catholics have not developed a personal relationship with our Lord in the Holy Ghost.
    The underlying problem, as correctly identified by Mr. England, is the concept of “a Church” promoted by Alpha, in which the fact that you are a member of a community of disciples is somewhat secondary to, or resulting from, your individual relationship with God, whereas in the Catholic understanding it is an inherent element of that personal relationship, as here on Earth our Lord can be tangibly met within the Church. Thinking otherwise is like building a relationship with a girlfriend/boyfriend without ever visiting her/his home. And this shortcoming does not result from the fact that Nicky Gumbel has intentionally decided that “the Church thing” may be left for some subsequent stage, but because he has never fully embraced the notion himself.
    2. Having said all that, what Mr. England seems to overlook is that the very presence of a Catholic priest during the course to a great extent ‘rectifies’ the problem, especially if those who organise Alpha are not its uncritical enthusiasts but rather conscious users well aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Then, contrary to Mr. England’s concerns, it can successfully create Catholics.
    3. In order to prevent this discussion from becoming too theoretical, a practical example is “encountering Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament”, which you have mentioned. This can and should be used to supplement the content of the course, especially during the Alpha weekend.


  2. I guess for people like Laurence England I’m basically a protestant because I believe in the holy (small-c) catholic and apostolic Church (as it is spelled in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, contrary to how he spelled it) so I guess I don’t count as a legitimate big-C catholic opinion, but I don’t think your feelings about Alpha are misplaced. I’m a cradle Catholic, and a revert through protestantism. Effectively my story was, as Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman put it, that to know history is to be a Catholic. I think there is a lot of merit in getting people to have a tangible experience of the living God in an age of unbelief when many even in the church simply go through the motions. Evangelium etc are great steps to involve people who had this first stage, and it’s easier to do if Alpha is run in Catholic parishes because contrary to his view that the content is all there is to it, people are agents. If they ask a Catholic leader rather than a Protestant one for what’s next, then you can bring them on the journey he wants them to be on. Alpha got where it is for a reason, and it works as a brand. I was thinking about getting involved with a Catholic Alpha course locally, or start one if none is there, and his critique has given me the confidence to do it. I wrote a really long comment (not that this one is short, my apologies) but then I thought instead of pushing it onto you I could turn it into my own blog post and go into even more depth about the reasons why people like him would be enough to push me away from the RC Church if only I didn’t have real faith in the truth of her claims…


  3. In the Catholic parish I am involved with we have introduced the Alpha course. I am not interested in doing it myself but that is because as a former Evangelical and Charismatic Anglican I have already given my life to Christ and have a personal relationship with Jesus but many of my fellow Catholics don’t and Alpha is great for great for kick starting their faith in a more personal manner. Once they have that then they will be more open to going deeper into encountered Christ in the Eucharist and Marian devotion etc. First people need to be fed milk before you give them meat.


  4. Do we know if any Ordinariate groups are planning to offer Alpha, or formal RCIA classes, or have done so recently? Or are we just having a theological discussion of general Catholic relevance? Obviously many people have a point of view, but I come to this blog looking for things I don’t see discussed elsewhere.


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